A journalist\’s take on how to eliminate snoring during sermons

First things first: I am not a pastor. While I have nine years of Lutheran primary and secondary education, my degree came from the University of Missouri and I have exactly zero days of formal, master’s-level theological training.

But I am a published author, I spent four years and thousands of dollars (and thousands more of scholarship money) studying journalism. So hopefully what I lack in Bible knowledge, I make up for in writing knowledge. And if denominations are to grow, especially the more conservative ones, I think more of the latter is going to be a necessity.I am writing this because I heard a sermon today that was relatively good. It disappointed me mostly because it could have been one of those sermons that people remembered for the rest of their lives. So let’s get down to business.

Write on a sixth-grade reading level. Your morning paper is written on that reading level. Newspapers are publications for the masses, so they are unwilling to assume that the majority of people can digest anything more complex than that level. Jesus made a point of demonstrating that Christianity is simple enough that a child can understand it. Therefore, a child ought to be able to understand the pastor.

And I’ve got something else shocking for you. What about the more intellectual publications? They’re written on a 10th-grade level.

So how do you write on that kind of a level? I’ll give you some tools. Eventually it becomes automatic.

Lose the big words. Most Lutheran pastors are academics. When it takes four years to get your master’s degree, you have to be. And if you want anyone outside of your own congregation to listen to you, you almost have to go back and get your doctorate.

But the problem is that while pastors and their colleagues are academics, the overwhelming majority of the congregation is not. The people who most desperately need to be reached certainly are not. And while I firmly believe that the pastor can stand in front of the congregation and read recipes for 20 minutes and God will make sure the person who needs to hear Him will hear exactly what He wants, I also believe it’s better for God to work through the guy standing up front more than in spite of him.

If your English Composition teachers were anything like mine, they required you to use five words you’ve never used before in every piece. But your English Comp teacher isn’t in the audience. Good writers know the rules of writing. Great writers know when to break them. William F. Buckley Jr. isn’t the rule. He’s the one guy who can get away with breaking so many.

Lose the long sentences and paragraphs. Your English Comp teacher probably told you a paragraph is a minimum of three sentences. That should be the first rule you learn to break. Short, punchy paragraphs are fine, and so are short, simple sentences. There’s nothing wrong with an eight-word sentence.

Practice writing on a sixth-grade level. If you use Microsoft Word, you can easily turn it into a tool for checking your writing. Go to the Tools menu, select Options, click Spelling & Grammar tab 4, and tick the box next to “Show readability statistics.” Now run a spelling/grammar check, click ignore on anything it flags, and it’ll give you your reading scores.

Try shortening up on some words and simplifying some sentences to see how the changes affect your work.

Relevance. A single mother of two who has never had a healthy relationship with a male doesn’t care about the original Greek or Hebrew in any given Bible passage. That’s an extreme example, but virtually everyone who walks through the doors of a church comes in carrying some baggage. It’s usually the only way God can get them there. It’s when life becomes its least bearable that people are most willing to find out what the Creator of life has to say about it. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems like the place you’re least likely to hear what God has to say about life is church.

That’s unfortunate. When you read the four Gospels, it’s clear that part of the reason thousands of people followed Jesus instead of the Pharisees was because Jesus talked about the things that mattered to them, while the Pharisees did not. If that contemporary church down the street is growing and your conservative church is not, the reason might not necessarily be the guitars and drums. The reason might very well be that the pastor gives good advice every week on how to get through this life.

I know plenty of people who attend my church for exactly that reason. They have no great love for the electric guitars and distortion–but they put up with it so they can hear how to have a better life every week.

While you don’t want to single out anyone and talk about his or her problems to the whole congregation, speaking about issues in general terms is good. Does the Bible have anything to say about credit card debt? Diet? Spoiled children?

I’m no fan at all of daytime talk shows–I think they’re God’s curse on the unemployed and unemployable–but I do believe that this world would be a better place if pastors would tune in to them once in a while. It gives you an idea of what kinds of problems people think about and face–and may not be willing to talk to you about–and it gives you some idea of what the world is saying about them. Your job is to tell the congregation what God says about those problems.

Get out more. I used to know someone who was required by his congregation to spend some time hanging out in bars. Ostensibly his job was to win converts. But I think it accomplishes some other things too.

First, it gives you a good feel for how people talk. Since these are the people who most need to be reached, you need to sound like them (minus the four-letter words).

Second, it gives you an idea what these people care about. You’ll probably overhear more about women and money than anything else. Significance and security are two very basic needs; if you can manage to illustrate every Sunday how God is the ultimate source of these two things, the size of your church will probably double every five years.

Granted, you don’t have to hang around in bars to hear people talk, but bars are where the broken people are most likely to go, and if your goal is to do what Jesus did and reach broken people, I think it helps to know what one looks for and what a broken person looks like.

The end. Like I said before, I’m not a pastor. I’m just a writer of above-average intelligence. It’s rare that a sermon sails over my head, and that was nearly as true when I was in the 4th grade as it is now.

But I’m not everyone, and the college-level dissertations that are all too common in many denominations every Sunday don’t do much, in my experience, to strengthen the church. Yes, to a degree I am advocating the dumbing down of the Sunday sermon. Hebrews 5 is relevant. You can’t assume anymore, in this day and age, that the majority of the people in the congregation can handle spiritual solid food. The Sunday sermon is the place for milk. The place for solid food is in Bible study, whether it occurs on Sunday morning before or after the service, or on some weeknight. And even then, I believe a lot of studies need to be serving milk.

But if every church serves milk long enough, the general public’s knowledge of the things of God will progress to the point where it can handle solid food on a much more regular basis.

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5 thoughts on “A journalist\’s take on how to eliminate snoring during sermons

  • July 4, 2005 at 1:50 pm

    "Like I said before, I’m not a pastor. I’m just a writer of above-average intelligence."

    de La Stenche shows your intellect and imagination. The use of Linux shows your smarts.

    Studies show that twenty percent of high school dropouts are considered gifted.
    It doesn’t take an Mensa I.Q. test to determine a true genius. If you are at the 99.7%, it already shows.
    Jesus loves eveyone including the intellectuals who deny his existence.
    If you want to clear out your church, let your parishoners know your talking down to them.

  • July 5, 2005 at 8:42 am

    Dave wrote:
    And if denominations are to grow, especially the more conservative ones, …

    On a side note, I’d be interested in what you mean, exactly, by “conservative.” I find it to be an over-used term, especially in today’s church culture. I’ll also admit that it’s a hot-button term for me, being an Episcopalian. There is a vocal minority in our church who style themselves as “conservative” and who’re raising much Strum und Drang in our denomination. Yet their stated beliefs have no resemblance to classical Anglican theology.

    In both the Church and in contemporary politics, it seems as if “conservative” has changed from its classical meaning into something like “people who agree with me that X is bad and so are the people who support X.” (yeah, kinda mushy – I know 🙂

    • July 5, 2005 at 10:45 am

      Oh, and in case I wasn’t clear, I wasn’t suggesting that you were one of those conservatives, nor was I trying to start a quarrel 🙂 I was just really curious about what “conservative” meant to you in this context, since you took pains to mention it…

    • July 6, 2005 at 5:33 pm

      "Conservative" may have been a poor choice of words. "Traditional" would probably be better. In Lutheran circles, "conservative" has very little to do with social conservatism or literal interpretation of the Bible. It has more to do with whether you use the official liturgy and hymnal ("conservatives") or if you use a more modern, contemporary-looking service ("liberals"). By that measure, I’m a flaming liberal.

      It’s these churches that seem least likely to have sermons that sound like college lectures, but frankly I don’t see any reason why it has to be that way.

      • July 7, 2005 at 8:20 am

        Ahhh..thanks. And a good point, too. I’m quite lucky to be a member of an Episcopal parish which is very “traditional” (using your def. above) and yet has extremely good preaching as well. It’s really the best of both worlds for me 🙂

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